The reporting of re­li­gion

New Straits Times - - Higher Ed -

cation at the Fac­ulty of So­cial Sci­ence, Univer­sity of Tehran.

Although I em­pha­sised that the prob­lem in the re­portage and rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Is­lam in the me­dia goes beyond the pro­fes­sion and cul­ture, the onus is also on us to con­tin­u­ously re­con­struct and ap­pro­pri­ate our im­age, and fa­cil­i­tate the di­a­logue. In the 1970s through the 1990s, we used to dub this “me­dia and cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism”. We were wrong. It lies deep in how knowl­edge of the world and of the Other has been struc­tured over the cen­turies. Re­li­gion and Is­lam have been badly cov­ered, even by our own jour­nal­ists and me­dia. Per­haps, the sin of cov­er­ing Is­lam is the fail­ure to be­lieve what was said about the re­li­gion by the Book, the Prophet, by the and by its be­liev­ers.

A ma­jor is­sue, which I high­lighted, was the jour­nal­is­tic nar­ra­tive. In mod­ern jour­nal­ism, time­li­ness — the here and now — and nov­elty are fun­da­men­tal cri­te­ria. And central to the news is con­flict, or what is con­ceived, or con­structed as such by the me­dia. But Is­lam and other ma­jor re­li­gions tran­scend the lan­guage of the present, of nov­elty, of events and of con­flict. It also tran­scends all forms of prox­im­i­ties. Is­lam (and other re­li­gions) is timeless, anath­ema to the spirit of time and pe­ri­odi­s­a­tion in his­tory and the mod­ern nar­ra­tive par­a­digm. The news par­a­digm needs a shift.

The par­a­digm may well em­brace the di­men­sions of time­less­ness and the tran­scen­dent. The cur­rent news par­a­digm is not com­pat­i­ble with re­li­gion, the tran­scen­dent and peren­nial val­ues. I told the panel and au­di­ence that we have to re­work the jour­nal­is­tic nar­ra­tive. The lan­guage of mod­ern news, with its em­pha­sis on events, in­ci­dents and the past tense, falls short of re­li­gion. The re­portage of re­li­gion tran­scends the past, the present and the fu­ture tenses.

In re­cent his­tory, Is­lam has be­come “news” of a par­tic­u­lar un­pleas­ant sort. The western pol­icy elites and aca­demic ex­perts are all in con­cert: that Is­lam is a threat to Western civil­i­sa­tion. Since uni­ver­si­ties also func­tion as repos­i­to­ries of knowl­edge and civil­i­sa­tion (and that thought is grad­u­ally be­ing erased from Malaysian uni­ver­si­ties), one of the ini­tia­tives to ame­lio­rate the is­sue must come from the cam­pus it­self.

Uni­ver­si­ties — and not limited to com­mu­ni­ca­tion, me­dia and jour­nal­ism schools and pro­grammes — must ed­u­cate and train stu­dents, and by ex­ten­sion, re­porters, ed­i­tors, pro­duc­ers and in­de­pen­dent writ­ers and jour­nal­ists on the telling of sto­ries about the in­ter­sec­tion of re­li­gion, faith, cul­ture and moder­nity with greater con­text, thought­ful­ness, crit­i­cal think­ing and con­scious­ness.

We have side­lined the spiritual di­men­sion in our so­ci­ety. Of note too is a re­vamp of mod­els of me­dia lit­er­acy as ap­plied to non-Western so­ci­eties. Con­cepts of me­dia lit­er­acy as ap­plied to Malaysia and the Mus­lim world must also be re­assessed in ap­pro­pri­at­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties out­side the Bri­tish or Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion.

On the reporting of re­li­gion, the learn­ing must in­clude ex­plain­ing and in­ter­pret­ing pol­i­tics as it en­gages with re­li­gion, iden­ti­fy­ing chal­lenges on is­sues of geopol­i­tics; iden­ti­fy­ing re­sources, con­cepts of ra­tio­nal­ity; and ad­dress­ing move­ments and spir­i­tu­al­ity as it col­ludes with moder­nity.

The pro­gramme must bear in mind the ob­jec­tive of re­spond­ing to the cov­er­age of Is­lam in­duced by the prob­lem­atic na­ture of its rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Un­der­ly­ing its ori­en­ta­tion and learn­ing is, in many ways, a re­verse of Euro­cen­tri­cism. Con­scious­ness of the task is to adopt a uni­ver­sal­is­tic ap­proach, and to coun­ter­act Euro­cen­tri­cism in the so­cial sciences by re­vers­ing the sub­ject-ob­ject di­chotomy.

In a nut­shell, the re­portage of re­li­gion (reporting re­li­gion/cov­er­ing re­li­gion/me­dia writ­ing on re­li­gion) com­prises the fol­low­ing themes (but not limited to them): Epis­te­mol­ogy and the pro­duc­tion of Knowl­edge/Civil­i­sa­tion and So­ci­ety/The Con­cept of Time and Pe­ri­odi­s­a­tion/Ori­en­tal­ism and Euro­pean His­tory/Euro­cen­tri­cism, Re­li­gion and the So­cial Sciences/Colo­nial­ism and Is­lam/ Is­lam and Civil­i­sa­tion/The Lan­guage of Re­li­gion and the Lan­guage of Mod­ern News/Edi­to­ri­al­is­ing Re­li­gion, Sci­ence, Is­lam and the Other/Re­li­gion and Me­dia, Is­lam and Other Re­li­gions.

The praxis in the re­portage of re­li­gion can be the central fac­tor in the di­a­logue among civil­i­sa­tions. It would be worth­while for uni­ver­si­ties in the Mus­lim world to pon­der and pro­pose such a pro­gramme, pro­vid­ing the rel­e­vant in­tel­lec­tual, lan­guage and writ­ing skills in the re­portage of Is­lam (and other re­li­gions). I told the Tehran Sym­po­sium that Mus­lim bu­reau­crats, schol­ars and in­tel­lec­tu­als must move beyond rhetoric. The univer­sity (in­clud­ing the me­dia pro­fes­sions) must en­doge­nously con­struct the news par­a­digm for Is­lam and the Mus­lim com­mu­nity to speak, and ap­pro­pri­ate its own voice in an ever chang­ing world.

The writer is a pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Univer­siti Sains Malaysia, and the first re­cip­i­ent of the Hon­orary Pres­i­dent Res­i­dent Fel­low­ship at the Per­dana Lead­er­ship Foun­da­tion. Email him at ah­mad­mu­

The lan­guage of mod­ern news, with its em­pha­sis on events, in­ci­dents and the past tense, falls short of re­li­gion.

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